Last week, in a walk-up apartment in Williamsburg, I sat at a dining room table with Rachel Howe—artist, ceramicist, stick-and-poke tattooist, practitioner of reiki, and, most recently, author and illustrator of a brand new Tarot guide book and deck of cards, Small Spells, from Discipline Press. Her friend and Discipline Press founder, Tamara Santibañez, sat with us. I’d never had a Tarot reading before. Frankly, I didn’t know what Tarot was, or believe that it dealt with, well, reality. And yet: I was drawn to it. Things, generally, were not feeling pleasant, and standard approaches—talking to friends, stewing silently, going to therapy—weren’t doing much. So, Tarot? Why not.
I got especially excited to have a reading when a friend of mine told me about Howe, whose new hand-drawn deck of 78 Tarot cards eschews standard Tarot imagery, which is often heavy in male/female dichotomies. Instead, Howe drew aesthetic inspiration from her background in tattooing, and filled her cards with simple objects and animals that she happened to like. She translated each of those symbols into the major and minor Arcanas contained in a Tarot deck: the minor is split into suits, each of which corresponds to different parts of our lives, while the major holds its own secrets and mysteries, Howe explained.
Tarot decks emerged around the 15th century and, historically, readers had to keep their practice mum; the church condemned anything akin to divination. But the fact that Tarot cards kind of resembled regular playing cards meant they could pass, hidden, as games. And yet, while Tarot and its messages might seem to commune with the occult and mysteries impenetrable to most, readings are anchored in reality. More than predicting the future, the symbolism on Tarot cards are tools for thinking more effectively about our lives. If there is any magic involved, it is present in the intuition of the reader, who applies these tools—the cards and their meanings—to aid that which bums us out. Yes, the practice can get witchier; it can also employ things like crystals. But at its core, a Tarot reading is a straightforward activity; and, as I was about to experience, one that was also refreshingly more practical, and even more effective than therapy.
Growing up in New Jersey, Howe had always been interested in the the occult and supernatural. She went to art school at Parsons and, eventually, began making ceramics full time. But the upper echelons of the art world turned her off. Meantime, there were some bigger changes in her life that made her seek clarity from places other than therapy. “In therapy, you’re talking about something that happened years ago, or something that happened last week,” Howe tells me, sitting in her incredibly well-ordered, pared-down apartment, with her ceramics and crystals on a shelf behind us. “And I love talking and I love processing things and talking about emotions, but I think you hold on to so much when you’re constantly talking about it. I don’t think that’s actually helpful if you’re goal is healing, because healing is releasing things.”
Unlike therapists, Howe told me, Tarot readers are often healers and Shamans, so part of their work is to offer sympathy and empathy to their subjects—something therapists often do not or cannot offer. “Most readings I’ve gotten have been from healers, and so that is part of their agendas, to be extremely loving and generous, rather than: ‘here is information and now go on your way.’” Howe explained. “But it’s like: where is the love?”
One of Howe’s first readings was from a healer who asked if she loved herself. The question was sparked by the way Howe had been talking about her troubles, before they even started looking at the cards. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been asked that question before, I’ve never thought about it.” It was an injection of “really loving energy,” as she described it. It meant that, after the reading, she would be prepared to deal with the things that the reading brought up. “That’s how I structure Tarot readings, too,” she told me. “Half of it is giving them the support that they need rather than saying ’here is the problem’—which you already know—and then I’m going to tell you positive things about yourself, and I’m also going to tell you really positive things about how to move forward.”
So, it was time for us to get down to it. Howe knew I’d never done a reading before. She started, as her healer had asked her, by asking me to describe in a very general sense what ailed me. She wasn’t a psychic, she explained. She could not name specific people or places that correspond to my life. Instead, her powers lie in intuiting feelings and frustrations based on the context provided, “so that I know what I’m talking about,” she explained, as she reads the cards.
I presented a recap of those wondrous things, my issues: professional life, personal life, uncertainty about the future. I more explained what those feelings were than outlined the specific details within them. Because, after all, “We hold our problems, but we also hold the solutions to our problems inside of ourselves,” said Howe.
And therein lies the crux of Tarot readings: counterintuitively, they operate on the premise that we, more than anyone else, know exactly what is bothering us, and exactly what we need to do to fix those things. And yet, as with most of our issues in life, we’re unable to see the solutions to them on our own. Systems, methods of thought, and outside perspective, are usually required to make progress. Tarot provides that kind of mental apparatus, delivered to us through the intuition and insight of readers. Readings are like an espresso shot for the spirit: it wakes you up, and makes you see things with fresh, new eyes. “Something I really like about tarot reading or an astrology reading—it’s not like it feels like a surprise,” says Howe. “It’s just something you need to hear and you’re like: I know, I already know.”
To begin, Howe cut the deck in three. “Pick whichever deck is attracting you the most,” she prompted. This was not too radical of an idea, but it did force me to think about the cards as having energy. I went with the middle option. When she reached for it, one card moved a little more than the others. She placed that one face up on on the deck, then dealt six more cards in front of us. “In a spread, a card has a specific meaning,” Howe explained. “In a spread like this, it could be mind, body, spirit, past, present, and future. The idea is to let the cards override [individual meaning] if they need to. Whenever a card falls out or draws attention to itself, that’s wanting to be seen.” She was calm and focused as told me this. Twenty minutes earlier, if someone had told me a card had been speaking to her, I would would have said, “sure.” But sitting with Howe I was completely on board. I wanted to know what that card had to say.
And, in fact, that card was about “holding on to things, letting our thoughts rule and trap us,” Howe told me. “In all the things you were mentioning, there is lingering behind them an expectation that things should be different—how things do not match up with what that is and, therefore, things are bad. That is a thought causing damage just by its existence,” she summarized. Instead, I should be looking at things more objectively. “Objectively, if you haven’t figured out what you want, if you’re not holding on to things, you’re like, let’s just change things.”
Often, said Howe, images will appear to her as she does readings. This time she saw a frozen lake—which spoke to me right away because I’m from Minnesota, though she did not know this—and proceeded to paint a beautiful metaphor. Imagine, she said, that I am running across this lake, wanting desperately to get to the other side. After all, walking on frozen lakes isn’t fun. I’m consumed by reaching the far shore; it doesn’t occur to me to drill a hole in the ice along the way, explore what lies beneath.
And what if, said Howe, hypothetically, the entire surface—my whole life—was a frozen lake? I wouldn’t be so anxious to reach the other side. “You’d do things differently,” she countered. “You’d wanna explore more, you’d wanna go beneath the surface.” The sentence was a jolt to my brain. Already, these Tarot cards, and Howe’s interpretation of them, was working.
Howe pointed to two more cards that belonged to the suit called Cups. They had to do with our emotions. One card pictured a group of birds. “These birds are just flying around, they’re just enjoying being birds, because they’re able to share with each other,” she said. Then she created a little dialog. “I’m a bird, you’re a bird, we’re birds!” They were saying to each other, having a great time. Then she pointed to another card. It also pictured birds, but next to them was a cat. “This cat is like, ‘these birds are different than those birds,'” she said, acknowledging the cat looking at two birds who had separated from the group. “I don’t have those, I want those new exciting birds that I can’t get,” the cat was saying. In reality, if they just stopped flying, they’d look identical to all the others.
The lesson was clear: If I’m seeking that which I do not already have, I’m not gonna have that much fun. But if I share what I have already, and just hang out, being myself? Well, you know how that story ends. I’ll attract the same, all the good stuff, in others. “That is a more enjoyable way to be,” Howe concluded.
Quite frankly, I was flabbergasted. Everything was simple. After all, objectively, I have a good life. Objectively, I live where I want to live and do what I want to do and have a whole bunch of great friends and family. Objectively, I have the life I set out to have. Why do I think things should look different? What more do I think I need? More of what? This frozen lake I keep running across, it will go on forever, and eventually I’m gonna slip and fall hard, right on my butt. But if I stop, drill a little hole through that ice, check out all that glorious life that swims beneath? Now that sounded like a much better time.
“So,” I said, sitting back in my chair, adjacent to Howe, “Tarot readings are just kind of about accepting ourselves as we are, to speak in gross generalizations.”
“It’s a tool for healing,” Howe added. “We can all heal ourselves, but first we have to know ourselves in order to know how to heal ourselves, and to have access to that.
Small Spells Tarot Deck and Guidebook from Discipline Press are now available at the publisher’s website and directly from smallspells.com. See more from Discipline Press on Instagram here and Small Spells here.
All images by Levi Mandel.